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The Triple Crown: An Account of the Papal Conclaves

by Valérie Pirie

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Charles IX
Henry III

Maximilian II
Rudolph II

Philip II

COSIMO DE MEDICI had not waited for the death of the reigning Pontiff to start preparations for the election of his successor; and it was principally owing to his well-directed efforts that Buoncompagni owed his elevation. The Duke and his candidate had come to an agreement by which the future Pope, in exchange for the triple crown, was to bestow on the Medici the lordship of several important cities. Cosimo's tactics were carefully planned and secure against all mishaps the human mind could foresee. Yet even then Cardinal Ferdinand de Medici thought it advisable to observe all customary precautions, as can be seen by this message written to his father:

I am without oil or powder [two kinds of poison which Cosimo prepared himself] and also without antidotes. Yet I must have these commodities with me in the conclave to be prepared for any eventuality. Forward me some without delay, also pomanders of strong perfume to hold in the hand so as to counteract the stenches of the conclave.

The cautious prelate was not to be subjected to a long confinement and can scarcely have had occasion to test the virtues of his poisons and antidotes or the potency of his aromatic deodorisers, for the conclave which elected Gregory XIII scarcely lasted forty-eight hours. The only obstacle still left to be overcome by Cosimo's agents, when the fifty cardinals assembled on May 12th, was the candidature of Farnese. That prelate had made a great effort to regain his prestige and had collected round him all the less austere members of the Sacred College whose bond of union was the defeating of Carlo Borromeo's party. Farnese, exerting all his influence and possessing undoubted proficiency at the game, was a serious competitor, but Cosimo was not perturbed. He had bought the Spanish cardinal Granuela, who was to stage so bold a piece of bluff that its very audacity was its guarantee of success.

As soon as the doors of the conclave were closed, Granuela called [p. 106] at Farnese's cubicle and on being admitted drew from within his robe a letter bound with a large yellow ribbon and sealed with the arms of Spain. Then reverently baring his head without uttering a word, he placed the document on the table with deferential solemnity while Farnese watched him spellbound and mystified. Recovering his composure, however, he stretched out his hand to pick up the letter, but Granuela prevented his doing so, edging him away from the table while he explained in cautious whispers that he had only just arrived from Naples bearing the despatch, and that it contained Philip's instructions to the Spanish party. He knew, he added, that the King had pronounced the exclusion against Farnese, but being himself well disposed towards him, wished to spare him an affront which would ruin any future chances he might have of occupying the Holy See; while if an election was arrived at immediately, before he had had time even to deliver his message, there need be no necessity ever to divulge it. It seems incredible that such an experienced conclavist as Farnese should not have suspected a ruse and insisted on verifying the Spaniard's assertions, but somehow Granuela managed to impress him with his honesty of purpose, which proves how judicious Cosimo was in the selection of his confederates. Having achieved this initial and hazardous master-stroke it was child's play for such an able strategist to persuade Farnese that Buoncompagni was his own suggestion, and to send him hot-foot to hasten his election.

The new Pontiff, Gregory XIII, was the son of a small tradesman of Bologna. He had studied law and his remarkable intellectual gifts had earned for him a chair at the university. He had subsequently been employed on various diplomatic missions to which his training and quiet, easy manner particularly fitted him. His open, pleasant countenance invariably disposed strangers in his favour, and his sympathies were all with moderation and tolerance. He owed the hat to Pius IV and on his accession immediately reinstated all that Pope's creatures to the dignities and benefices of which Pius V had deprived them. The Romans and all the subjects of the Holy See drew a deep breath of relief and thanksgiving at the advent of a more human Pontiff, for human he certainly was, and would no doubt have proved himself so had he been at liberty to do it. But he was surrounded by the censorious prelates who had been Pius V's [p. 107] familiars, the Pontiff whose terrifying wraith seemed to haunt the Vatican. The Jesuits also were always at hand, creating an atmosphere of austerity and religious enthusiasm to which the Pontiff offered less and less resistance as time wore on and his natural impulses grew weaker. He was devoted to his illegitimate son, and had at first attempted to shower riches and dignities on him as his predecessors had done for their offspring. But he soon discovered that times had changed and that the Papal Court viewed these signs of parental fondness with such marked disfavour that he had to resign himself to the humiliation of begging patents of nobility and honours for his beloved son from the Venetian Republic and the King of Spain. What his real feelings about the massacre of St. Bartholomew were, no one can tell. The event occurred so soon after his accession that he cannot possibly have been privy to it. Pius V had undoubtedly urged some such measure on Catherine de Medici, but it seems established now that the horrible slaughter was inspired mainly by political reasons and court intrigues. Hatred of Coligny's personality much more than of his convictions was the cause of his murder.

It was an accepted prerogative of sovereigns in those days to dispose of the lives of their subjects. The security of the throne came before all other considerations, and if there was no guilt attached to the slaying of one rebel, logically there was none incurred by the slaughter of many. A proof of how insignificant a part religion played in the matter is given by Lord Acton in his Essays on Liberty. He writes that:

Catherine de Medici proposed to Queen Elizabeth to do to the Catholics of England what she had done to the Protestants of France, promising that if they were destroyed there would be no loss of her goodwill.

So much for the Queen Mother's religious zeal.

As to the Pope he ordered illuminations and processions. The guns of S. Angelo boomed, the churches re-echoed with Te Deums, a medal was struck to commemorate the pious deed and Vasari was ordered to immortalise the event on the walls of the Sixtine Chapel. Could the head of the Church of Rome—the official patron of the Inquisition—show less enthusiasm than Philip II, who not only hailed the event as a second Lepanto, but sent a gift of 2000 crowns to Coligny's murderer? Slowly but surely the Jesuits gained in influence [p. 108] and they ended by obtaining a complete hold on the mesmerised Pontiff's mind.

Under their guidance trouble was fomented in Ireland, plots hatched in London to destroy Elizabeth, and missionaries were actively engaged in promoting civil war in France. The order of the Jesuits under Gregory XIII played the part that cardinal-nephews played in the worst days of nepotism. Their word was law; they completely ruled the State and cost the Papacy fabulous sums, for they were gaining a foothold in every quarter of the globe and the perpetual foundation of new houses and the endowments they necessitated drained the Pope's resources as surely as any rapacious or squandering relations could have done. His finances reached such a low ebb that new means had to be found to levy funds, and he resorted under one pretext or another to arbitrary confiscation of foreign merchandise in the ports of the Papal States, and to the expropriation of barons from their feudal lands. Alleging that the original grants made to the nobles were not hereditary, families who had lived for generations on estates they considered their property, were turned adrift to exist as best they could. They naturally resorted to highway robbery and the country was plunged into a state of mediæval anarchy. Long-forgotten feuds were renewed, and bandits preyed impartially on all parties. Gregory was powerless to restore order, for the Jesuits were much better versed in the art of hatching trouble than in that of coping with it—and he was forced much against his will to grant a free pardon to the outlaws and reinstate some of the robber barons into their possessions.

Gregory's name has earned immortality through his association with the reform of the calendar. He was always partial to scientific pursuits and gave every encouragement to the learned men, who undertook to solve the difficult problem, which they accomplished with such success that their formula for the division of time will probably endure for ever. Left to his own devices the Pontiff would probably have led a life of ease, been tolerant and good-natured, held intercourse with men of culture and found satisfaction in parental affections. But his mentors allowed him no backsliding and no respite, goading him on to an artificial pose of dogmatism and bigotry quite foreign to his nature. Gregory XIII reminds one irresistibly of one of those primitive pictorial efforts intended for Christian propaganda, [p. 109] portraying a troubled-looking mortal being dragged upward on his right by a floating angel, while on his left a crouching devil well anchored to the earth by his talons strains desperately to delay the skyward flight.

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